The Pokemon GO Phenomenon

Dad, there is a Zubat on you!

-My daughter, in the middle of the SF MOMA

Pokemon are literally everywhere these days.  Pokemon GO was the theme of the weekend.

I must admit I am a bit jealous of those who have smart phones for one.  The lure of Pokemon made me consider ditching my ridiculously cheap pre-paid burner phone… that is pretty much just a phone… in order to be able to join in on the fun.

It is one thing for my Twitter feed to be all abuzz about some new game, but it is quite a new thing to be able to actually see people engaged with a game out in the world.  On Saturday I drove my daughter up to the store to get a new inner tube for her bike.

In the car she was telling me all the Pokemon she could see.  Meanwhile, just looking out the window I could clearly see people hunting for Pokemon.  You see three guys with their smart phones out in their hands, one wearing a Pikachu shirt, and there is little question as to what they are pointing at.

My daughter wanted to get her bike going, which she has ignored for a few years, in order to ride around with a friend in search of Pokemon.  The park in our neighborhood, which has a Pokestop , has people walking all over with their phones out.  My daughter says that there is a group that camps the park and has a lure… a cash shop item that attracts more Pokemon to a location… running all the time.

Nintendo has been big on getting its users to get up an exercise from time to time, there being the Wii Fit, or the Pokewalker that came with Pokemon HeartGold & SoulSilver, to the built-in pedometer in the 3DS, to the simple reminders that come up during some games to encourage players to take a break, stretch, and maybe get some exercise.

But if Nintedo’s plan was to get its fans up and out of the house, it has succeeded. (Complete with sound track I guess.) In my daughter’s case, my wife has gone from, “You need to leave the house” during the day to “You need to be home by…” pretty quickly.

Meanwhile, people I know who pay no real attention to video games know what Pokemon GO is suddenly.  Without any big marketing campaign, it made it to the top of the download list on the iTunes store and, more importantly, to the top of the highest grossing app list as well.

Not there haven’t been problems.  A couple of times my wife handed me her iPhone 6 so I could try the game out, only to be thwarted because the servers were down due to the overwhelming load.  And then there is the battery drain.  The app uses GPS, data, and your phone’s camera, which conspire to kill battery life at a prodigious rate, though a fix to help that is reported to be on the way. (Some battery tricks are available.)

Then there have been the real life issues.  Along with the usual tales of people driving or riding bikes while playing, or restaurants dealing with the whole thing, a news story surfaced about somebody finding a dead body while out looking for Pokemon near a river, while a group was using Pokemon lures to attract players to a remote location in order to rob them.  And then there were some simple bad taste moments, like a Koffing, a Pokemon that emits noxious gas, being found at the United States Holocaust Museum.

But otherwise the whole thing seems to have been a rousing success, where the biggest problem is simply too many people wanting to play the game.  They have held off rolling it out in other countries until they get a handle on the server issue.  Nintendo’s stock is up and I expect that we will be hearing a lot more about Pokemon GO over the next couple of weeks.  Cue segments on the news, late night talk shows, and Ellen this week for sure.  There is a Blastoise in the fountain at the White House and people are going to talk about it.

Even today’s XKCD features the game.

This could be a moment of change for Nintendo.  After the tepid response to the Wii U, largely due to self-inflicted issues, Nintendo seemed to be grudgingly heading towards the mobile market to appease shareholders.

The culture of the company has always seemed to me to be that of a hardware maker, for whom software sells the hardware. (I’ve worked for companies like that before.)  They make new versions of Super Mario Bros. in order to sell more consoles in to the family room and new versions of Pokemon in order to sell more handheld units.  And that has been a viable plan for the most part.  Certainly the GameBoy, DS, and 3DS lines have been sustained by Pokemon.  I own a 3DS solely to play Pokemon, and I doubt I am alone in that.  But while they like software sales, they measure their success as a company in hardware units sold.

And, suddenly, they have a runaway success on somebody else’s platform, a runaway success where they are only the software vendor in an environment where they do not control everything.

This has to be an eye opening moment for Nintendo which has, in the past, disparaged the idea of things like 99 cent apps, stating that their games have more value than that.  And now they are making bank on an app they are giving away for free vie the age old scheme of giving the razor away and making money selling the blades.

I don’t think Nintendo is suddenly going to give up on hardware.  That is too ingrained in their culture.  It is too much a part of Nintendo’s identity.  But I imagine they will be even more serious about this sort of “software only” thing in the future.

In the mean time I am waiting for people to draw the wrong conclusions from this sudden success.  You know that, right now, somebody out there is going, “Hah, I can make a GPS AR app better than that!” while forgetting that the immediate success of Pokemon GO is in large part because Pokemon is a 20 year old franchise for Nintendo that has enjoyed immense popularity.  Pokemon is second only to Mario at Nintendo, and the plumber showed up nearly a decade and a half earlier.  Ars Technica has a post up on some of the realities.

It will be interesting to see how this changes things, if it changes things at all.

Back in our little corner of the world, my daughter caught several Pokemon at the SF MOMA.  While the place seemed to be mostly populated by Zubats, she did get a Growlithe, which made her happy.  She was a bit upset that we wouldn’t let her run out of the MOMA when there was a Bulbasaur across the street by the Metreon.  When we finally did walk over there it was gone, but there was a Jynx nearby.  We went over to grab that.  As my daughter was trying to catch it, I saw somebody else walk up who was clearly there to catch it as well.  Pokemon are contested and whoever catches it first gets it.  My daughter managed to grab it, but there were not hard feelings, just a nod to a fellow fan who moved off in search of further catches.

So it sounds like Pokemon GO will be a thing for a while, the app of the summer.

Addendun : Security concerns if you used Google to log in.

Others on Pokemon Go weekend fun:

10 thoughts on “The Pokemon GO Phenomenon

  1. Mazer

    Blood Raiders GO! just paints crosshairs on any nearby humans. Suspiciously indistinguishable from Quafe GO!


  2. Gaff

    I have always looked at your Pokemon posts with some misunderstanding as to how the game could be fun–first it was on a mobile gaming platform and second, I felt there was a cultural disconnect with the IP. However, Pokemon Go is the first game I have played on my phone (besides the VR ones I recently got changing to a Samsung). Luke and I drive around and he works both phones. We stop and take gyms. We get out and walk around–even at midnight. It is not a good game, but it has the click-addictive characteristics of many successful MMOs. This includes, but is not limited to, bad server response, rubber banding, lag, disconnects, bugged boss fights, etc. But I still keep playing. I keep wandering into secluded areas with my phone hidden in my pocket and then take gyms when no one is around. The closest experience in gaming I have had to Pokemon Go is killing ferns and running the pirate ship on Toril. The only reason to do it was to do it more with bigger damage. I also run out of Pokeballs.


  3. Pingback: The Pokemon Juggernaut | To Game For Life

  4. mrrx

    This is **ALL** about the Pokemon IP you know. (I’m sure you do). Ingress has been out for years and never achieved a fraction of this level of hype.

    You are going to be a person to watch. A curmudgeon technologist, with a phone only useful for voicing, and a lifelong Pokemon enthusiast. And part of this blogging community filled with phone users and inevitably more and better phone games. What is it that will put you over the edge and convince you to plunge into a smartphone ? I have to admit I’m surely jealous of the phone bill you must pay for something like that, mine is so large I’m embarassed to admit the cost; and my son needs a phone now too. Ugh.

    I am trying really hard to get my friends – I have a technologist who doesn’t game on his smartphone, and my dumbass friend who just got his first – started on Ingress, by getting us all out together, have some beers and wander around taking portals. It should make a good blog post. If I can convert my buddy into a mobile gamer that’ll definitely be interesting.


  5. Chris

    At least they got rid of the portals at the old Auschwitz death camp. I couldn’t imagine the backlash if there were pokestops there.


  6. bhagpuss

    It occurs to me that you probably don’t need an actual phone to play this. I have a dongle for my Tablets that I’ve never used. It just needs a sim card and I have access to the mobile network on my tablet. I could use that just to play Pokemon Go. If I was so inclined. Which as yet I am not. It would be an interesting experiment though…


  7. Sleepysam

    You will break. The slowly diminishing cost of a smartphone combined with better and better (addicting and more addicting) games will win.

    Or, just take an ipad and find a pokestop with wifi.


  8. Random Poster

    I downloaded it but right now need no actual game. You grab Pokémon and then can’t do anything with them unless you happen to be near a gym which unless you live in the city you are probably not close to. Also wth with not being able to trade?

    So basically right now it’s an app you download pictures of Pokémon for. Not impressed


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